When Media Scholars and Anti-Media Advocacy Groups Get Too Close

Back in 1996, under pressure from congress, the TV industry established the TV Parental Ratings, to inform consumers about the content of TV shows they're about to watch. These are the boxes that appear at the beginning of a show, typically showing age categories such as TV-14 with content descriptors such as S for sex or V for violence.

In the last few weeks the Parents Television Council (PTC), a controversial and aggressive anti-media advocacy group, has been pushing the Federal Communications Commission and congress to hold hearings on revamping the TV ratings. The PTC appears to be allied mainly with right-wing religious or social conservative groups in its effort, expressing concern that the current TV ratings allow for too much objectionable content. Echoing this concern, a group of 28 scholars wrote to the FCC last week to support hearings claiming that objectionable content could be harmful to minors. In order to suggest that they were not affiliated with any other organization, the authors of the letter explicitly noted that they were "writing as independent private citizens. . ." However, one recent news report has discovered that this statement may have been written at the request of the PTC. So it isn't too surprising to learn that the statement goes on to claim that research has ". . . documented harmful effects of violent content; indeed, this is by far the most thoroughly researched area of media effects."

Yet, these claims are patently false. There certainly are numerous studies of media effects, but whether considering violent content or other objectionable content, the evidence has always been inconsistent, controversial and often plagued by methodological flaws. In their letter to the FCC the 28 academics engage in a dubious practice called citation bias...citing only studies supporting their personal views, and ignoring studies that inconveniently do not. In one recent essay, scholars Thomas Babor and Thomas McGovern specifically refer to this unscientific behavior as one of the "seven deadly sins" of scientific publishing. Reports of close coordination with a censorious anti-media advocacy group are also worrisome. In a report from 2013, I warned scholars against such activities, noting these represented a conflict-of-interest similar to working closely with media industries.

Concerned about this misrepresentation of the research field by some academics, a second group of over 60 scholars has also written to the FCC, noting that the research data cannot support claims of harm or consistent effects. This second letter expresses remorse that some of their scientific colleagues would misrepresent the data in apparent support of a moral advocacy agenda.

Unfortunately, the distinction between good science and moral advocacy has long been a problem for media effects. Back in 2011, the US Supreme Court weighed in for the Brown v EMA case which considered the regulation of violent video game sales to minors. The majority decision correctly noted that research evidence was inconsistent and could not be used to make claims of a public health crisis. Many of the same scholars who pushed unsuccessfully for the regulation of violent games 5 years ago are now back arguing for the same for television.

Why is this issue of TV ratings coming up now? Groups such as the PTC thrive off of generating controversy regarding media. The PTC is perhaps most famous for raising a national brouhaha over Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show. Media regulation/censorship focused advocacy groups arguably survive by the donations solicited through frightening people and whipping up outrage (the PTC has helpful suggestions on their website about how to donate to them in your will, or give them a car or stocks). The result is that the general public and policymakers are fed frightening misinformation rather than an accurate and careful tally of divergent research data. That some scholars participated in this process is distressing to see. However, it may be representative of larger problems within psychological science, which is fully in the depths of a replication crisis, wherein many things we once thought were true are proving difficult to replicate with a closer look. Media effects is one of the areas being hard hit by this phenomenon.

The bottom line is that, if the goal is to provide good quality information to parents, hearings prompted by moral advocacy and dishonest claims on the part of some scholars are unlikely to provide this. Ratings that resulted from this process would undoubtedly do more to misinform than inform viewers. We deserve better than the scaremongering that so often dominates conversations about media.